Four months into Biden’s presidency, it’s a question that must be asked
With President Biden pushing for trillions of dollars in covid relief, infrastructure building, education funding, health care support, and more, many have given the credit for the broad support his progressive agenda has enjoyed to Bernie Sanders’ transformative runs for the presidency. The argument is that Biden, because of his reputation as a pragmatic centrist, can move forward with essentially the same agenda Sanders developed in a way that Sanders himself, with his proud “democratic socialist” self-identification, never could have. As The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch put it (repurposing the old saw that President Nixon’s anti-communism made it possible for him to open relations with China): “Only Biden Can Go to Norway.”
For those who view political ideologies as mainly tools, with moral principles and social theories packaged together solely for the purpose of advancing particular policies, this outcome is fine. In fact, such might even say that the “Biden-as-progressive-reformer” phenomenon is the best possible result, with radical ideas having become so normalized that a president with no attachment to the socialistic ideology through which they were articulated (which certainly describes Biden) can advance them under a different label entirely! But for those whose commitment to their ideological convictions led them to persevere through opposition and actually shape those ideas in the first place, this pragmatic approach may generate ambivalence.
Sanders himself is not at all ambivalent about Biden’s efforts thus far: He fully supports them and hopes to build upon them. Among some of the aforementioned true believers, though, Sanders’ support for Biden complicates his own relationship to the “democratic socialism” he has trumpeted more successfully than any other American politician since Eugene V. Debs a century ago. If Sanders’ socialism is the kind that Biden—with no interest in socialist analysis and no intention of thoroughly democratizing wealth—can advance, just what kind of socialism is it?
The responses to this question range from those on the left who insist Sanders was never a true socialist anyway to those on the right delighted to paint Biden’s progressive liberalism with the same socialist accusation they’ve employed against Democrats for close to a century.
In the midst of these responses there exists a critical historical fact: Over the years of Sanders’ presidential campaigns there have been significant increases in the number of Americans who sympathize with socialist goals, along with an increase in the number of arenas—both local and national; both strictly economic and broadly cultural—within which this sympathy has been expressed. The growth of the Democratic Socialists of America—a “multi-tendency organization” with significant differences among its hundreds of chapters, and an organization that has prominently benefited from Sanders’ campaigns, despite his never having joined it—is perhaps the most emblematic example. But it isn’t the only one.
As part of a long, thoughtful essay, full of genuine (if often back-handed) praise of the Democratic Socialists of America, author Frederik DeBoer expressed doubt that “the average DSA member could give you a coherent definition of what ‘democratic socialism’ even is.” But he also reflected that while those who identify with socialist causes today haven’t accomplished much on their own terms, “neither has Black Lives Matter, or MeToo, or any group (or individual) which has participated in this confused and substance-free ‘social revolution’ we are supposedly living in.” This is, to be sure, a rather cynical take on political developments of the past half-decade—yet it also touches on something vital. Specifically, it requires that we take seriously the question of how much Sanders’ insistence upon the validity of “democratic socialism,” whatever its inconsistencies, has contributed to the broad emergence of groups and causes that, in their own anarchic ways, have similarly embraced a democratizing aim.
The scientific socialism of Marx presented concentrated socio-economic power (and its alienating effects) as something that could only be smashed through revolutionary action. Later thinkers saw that this revolutionary logic did not reflect the actual socio-economic developments of the industrial world and argued instead that socialism could be built electorally in the midst of the marketplace. This is what gave us “democratic socialism,” and later “social democracy,” well represented by countries like Norway, as well as by the Sanders—and arguably the Biden!—platform.
The late sociologist Erik Olin Wright, however, suggested that socialists should see the obstacles to the democratization of wealth as something that can be “eroded” as well as smashed or tamed. How? By building and advocating for alternatives “interstitially”—in the gaps of our economic order. Wright acknowledged that focusing on the many different ways in which social goods can be produced and distributed besides the capitalist marketplace—including “within the intimate relations of families; through community-based networks and organizations; by cooperatives owned and governed democratically by their members; though nonprofit market-oriented organizations; through peer-to-peer networks engaged in collaborative production processes,” etc.—would not be sufficient to accomplish the aims of socialism. Instead, he contended, “we need a way of linking the bottom-up, society-centered strategic vision of anarchism with the top-down, state-centered strategic logic of social democracy.” The relationship between the two is vital. In an article published in Jacobin just before his death, Wright argued that it is through such open-ended and organic associational efforts that we can “get on with the business of building a new world, not from the ashes of the old, but within the interstices of the old.”
The democratic socialist banner with which Sanders has long inspired people is obviously far more on the social democratic side than the anarchic one. And yet it would be simply perverse to claim that Sanders’ constant emphasis on income inequality and worker disempowerment has had no relevance whatsoever to the explosion of interest in diverse radical movements for recognition and justice, or—especially during the pandemic—cooperative efforts to provide mutual aid. In his final book, Michael Harrington, the founder of Democratic Socialists of America, concluded that socialism had to move towards a “decentralized conception of its goal”—going so far as to ask if a “socialist republicanism” was possible (Socialism: Past and Future, 1989). Perhaps looking back historically over the Sanders ideological impact of the 2010s will similarly oblige us to recognize that his greatest accomplishment wasn’t helping make the Democratic party more comfortable with certain (re-named!) democratic socialist ideas but rather helping bring into the mainstream a fruitful mess of radicalisms, all of which are busy promoting their own alternative democratizing visions.
In “Bernie Sanders’ Five-Year War,” Matt Karp observes: “If Bernie Sanders was not fated to be the Abraham Lincoln of the twenty-first-century left, winning a political revolution under his own banner, he may well be something like our John Quincy Adams—the ‘Old Man Eloquent’ whose passionate broadsides against the Slave Power in the 1830s and 1840s inspired the radicals who toppled it a generation later.” This is, I think, correct. To see ideological constructs as static and linear is to perhaps misunderstand the organic character of ideological constructs in general. Bernie Sanders failed to win the presidency, but he didn’t fail to fertilize, with his words and actions, long moribund ideas in America. The diverse, disparate ideological growths in his wake will likely be with us for a while.
Russell Arben Fox runs the History & Politics major and the Honors Program at Friends University, a small Christian liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, where he has lived with his wife and their daughters since 2006. He is a regular contributor to the localist website Front Porch Republic, the Religious Socialism blog sponsored by Democratic Socialists of America, and the Mormon blog By Common Consent.